Poor People Make Poor Decisions

Students are reputably known for being poor. It might be the crushing price of rent, the high price of groceries, or the hefty levies for trying to park at ANU. Being poor is not a good thing, but research shows that it might be more than your wallet that’s hurting – your decision making could be suffering too.

New research, published in the journal Science last month, suggests that poverty, and all the concerns associated with it, is linked to poor decision making and diminished cognitive ability. The researchers found that being concerned about how you’re going to make rent or where your next meal is coming from takes up so much of your cognitive resources that it diverts it away from matters which demand more mental resources, such as studying, proper time management or self-improvement.

A lack of financial resources can impair cognitive function, which hinders their ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty,” said Jiayang Zhao, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and lead author of the study. “These financial pressures create a salient concern in the mind and draw mental resources to the problem itself. This means we are unable to focus on the things in life that really need our attention.”

In a series of experiments, the researchers set scenarios for their participants, centred around figuring out ways to solve common financial problems, like sudden car repairs or unplanned expenditure, and were asked to complete the logic and cognition tests while they were doing so.

There was no difference between the rich and poor when the financial situation was easy to figure out. However, lower income participants performed significantly worse on the tests when the financial situation was dire, compared to participants with a higher income. The participants who had the burden of poverty on their shoulders exhibited a decline in cognitive ability similar to losing 13 IQ points, or missing a full night’s sleep.

So before I sound like a nagging parent and tell you to get a job, just know that you have no excuse to be academically underperforming – you don’t have the same financial concerns as someone in true poverty. Are you failing classes? Try studying.

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